The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Ethnic has the edge

THERE: Textured jackets with fitted cigarette pants in hues of browns and moss green; vintage long dresses with old rose prints; mid-calf length skirts teamed with sheer chiffon blousons...

HERE: Heavily woven and ornamented saris in vibrant reds, blues and oranges; embroidered kurtas with flowy dupattas; lehngas embellished with zardosi work and semi-precious stones...

Global shapes crafted from indigenous fabrics peppered with trademark Indianisation have put the city on the world ramp. From Milan to Miami, from London to Los Angeles, designers from Calcutta are making their mark at fashion events with strong Indian sensibilities underlying neatly tailored western silhouettes.

But back home, the style story takes a reverse route, with the same designers dressing up the Calcutta fashionista with dreamy ethnic drapes, often sprinkled with western seasonings. Saris, lehngas, salwar kameezes and, more recently, fusion ensembles make up the designer wear story in town. Ethnic rules over western when it comes to designer clothes in Calcutta. Period.

'Safe, conservative and ethnic designer clothes primarily sell in Calcutta. For pret, people go to shopping malls,' declares Sabyasachi Mukherjee, for whom Calcutta accounts for just five per cent of his pret sales.

And the trend can be attributed as much to supply as demand.

Demand downer

The design wear market in the city is primarily wedding driven, confirm most designers. And hence ethnics rule the racks. 'Calcutta is a very strong wedding market and people here buy designer clothes mainly for the trousseau or to wear to wedding functions. So, the demand is mainly for saris and lehngas,' stresses designer Abhishek Dutta.

The occasion-graph of the city is geared almost entirely to wedding wear. 'If you are spending a bomb on a designer outfit, you would obviously want to wear it on special occasions. And in Calcutta there are not many occasions that require you to be dressed in western wear. So spending on a designer sari or lehnga that you can wear at least five times a year to various weddings makes more sense than dishing out the same amount for a dress that you can wear only on New Year's Eve or Valentine's Day,' feels designer Sayon Mitra.

Sabyasachi highlights the lack of high-profile parties in the city that cry out for designer pret. 'Designer westerns are meant to be worn to exclusive parties. Not too many such parties happen in Calcutta as compared to Delhi and Mumbai. So, people don't invest in such clothes here,' he explains.

And the vibrant nightlife of the city that parties the longest hasn't really rubbed off on the style-o-meter. 'A flowing sari or a salwar suit is not an uncommon sight in a nightclub here. That's something unimaginable in Delhi or Mumbai,' says Abhishek.

The other area where Calcutta differs from its more fashionable counterparts is the conservative dress code at work. 'MNCs in Bangalore, Delhi and Mumbai often require employees to be dressed in smart western clothes. But in Calcutta, salwar kameez is the common office wear,' points out Sayon.

Then there's the go-west-to-buy-western syndrome. 'Most affluent people here do their western wear shopping from abroad, casual and daily wear clothes from shopping malls in the city, and turn to the designers only for ethnics,' declares Sabyasachi.

Abhishek agrees: 'People here prefer branded clothes from malls and retail stores for their western wear. They feel designer pret is not value for money. They don't bat an eyelid before dishing out thousands for a sari, lehnga or a heavily-worked salwar kameez, but are most reluctant to spend the same on a western ensemble.'

Style consultant Sunipa Samadder adds another dimension by pointing out how the 'posture' and 'attitude' of Calcutta women are not suited to western wear. 'Indian clothes are semi-fitted as opposed to western outfits that are essentially fitted. And the body shape, gait or attitude of the average Calcutta woman are not very apt for western clothes.'

Supply strength

But no one's complaining about Calcutta emerging as an exclusive ethnic wear market. This allows designers to exploit the heritage and tradition of Bengal, where the strengths lie in the fabrics, weaves, the hand-embroidery and the prints. All of these contribute to the rich ethnic content.

'Calcutta is not a strong western wear market from the production point of view. Our textiles and highly-skilled karigars are our forte. And this gives us the edge in ethnic-wear production,' says Sabyasachi.

Sunipa points to Bengal's treasure trove of textiles being tapped by designers to create ethnics. 'We have a very strong heritage of rich silks as well as muls, linen and fine cotton. These fabrics lend themselves to ethnic wear beautifully and are best suited to our kind of climate. Western clothes, on the other hand, essentially demand polyester blends or manmade fibres. And these are not suitable for the Calcutta weather.'

The ethnic edge also makes up for the shortcomings of western wear production here, with the infrastructure being weak and not too many export houses manufacturing the required materials. 'There are really no good manufacturers in Calcutta for fasteners like buttons and zippers and materials for interlining and fusing. These are essential in western wear to get the right fit, which is not so important in Indian clothes. So, we have to import these from the UK, the US, Hong Kong or Bangkok. This pushes up the cost and often makes it non-viable,' explains Sunipa.


Sabyasachi Mukherjee, designer
“Bengal, with its rich textiles and craftsmanship, is naturally equipped with resources that complement the production of ethnic pieces. It is not a strong western market because of lack of demand and proper infrastructure”

Abhishek Dutta, designer
“I started as a western wear designer in 2000, but only for four months. I switched to ethnics as soon as I understood my customers’ requirements. Western dressing comes alive only on New Year’s Eve and maybe Valentine’s Day”

Amrita Sengupta, model
“Calcuttans are still quite conservative. Western wear is restricted only to pre-marriage wardrobes, because the before and after divide is so pronounced”

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